Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.

MPs will be asked to vote on Wednesday to reject a Lords amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill that says that:

no student, either undergraduate or postgraduate, who has received an offer to study at such a higher education provider, be treated for public policy purposes as a long term migrant to the United Kingdom.”

This amendment attempts to exempt international students from the ONS’s migration statistics, making it impossible to tell the numbers coming in (and out?), while potentially also reducing the Government’s ability to decide on numbers. At best it is muddled, at worst it is disingenuous, either way it should be rejected.

So who is behind this? This amendment is, unsurprisingly, the culmination of a campaign by UK universities themselves. Now, academics are by definition ‘experts’, they may sometimes be ‘independent’, some may even say ‘unaccountable’. However, given that they make a sizeable proportion of their income derived from them, when it comes to immigration and international students they are definitely not ‘impartial’.

They are also formidable campaigners in their own cause. Their Chancellors and Principals are heavily represented in the House of Lords. Indeed, among amendment 150’s supporters we see a Chancellor of Oxford and a Principal of an Oxbridge College. Many other members of the academic nobility spoke in the course of the debate.

No need to change: Temporary international students do not affect net migration figures

International students are counted into the UK and counted out if they return at the end of their studies. Therefore, if no students remained in the UK the net figure would be zero. This is, however, not the case. Statistics show the majority stay on.

Forcing the ONS not to count international students would make it impossible to understand the true extent of student/graduate immigration. If the amendment also blocks the Government from capping the number of student visas per year then we could have an increase in numbers, while refusing to allow the ONS to count it. This is not good policy and would be contrary to international best practice. It would also be inconsistent as the counting of outbound and returning UK students studying abroad would also seemingly continue distorting the statistics still further.

When does an international student migrant become a graduate migrant?

ONS statistics on students coming in and out of the UK in 2015 show that 192,000 came in and 57,000 returned. In other words 70 per cent stayed on either a temporarily or permanent basis. Those leaving in 2015 will obviously relate to previous years, but as the ONS graph below shows a large mismatch remains.

image002 (1)

If the ONS was forced to stop counting inbound students, given the time lag, if it continued to count returnees after their courses or later there would be an artificial lowering of the statistics for several years. If their Lordships’ idea is to continue to count returnees but not to count arrivals then the statistics would become even more meaningless. If this is the plan of their Lordships, it is a very disingenuous one.

Should there be a limit on international students?

While universities benefit financially from international students, the Government needs to look at wider policy considerations in terms of funding of public services and immigration. The decision to allow graduates to stay on in the UK should be taken on its own merits, and not be done simply in order to allow the universities to top up their finances. 

Fairness for UK students?

While UK students face strong competition for places at the best UK universities there is evidence that, incentivised by the ability to charge higher fees, universities let in non-UK students on lower grades. This would not create any unfairness if the same students accepted on different grades were not to then compete for the same graduate jobs. The evidence, however, is that they do. Competition for graduate jobs is already extreme, with research finding that nearly 60 per cent of UK graduates end up working in non-graduate jobs. We already have an oversupply of graduates. Added to this oversupply we have a potential 150,000 international students at universities and other institutions staying on and competing for the same jobs and placements.

Recent (and welcome) changes to the visa rules will in future limit international students to jobs earning over £30,000 a year. This could potentially limit competition to the top end of the graduate job market. If the Government also includes EU students in this bracket it will also improve the prospects for the 376,000 students who graduated from UK universities in 2015/16.

There is a case to be made for graduate immigration, but why limit it to foreign students at UK universities and exclude bright graduates from, say, Harvard or indeed the more than seven million graduates per year from China?

Fairness for the taxpayer?

While in the EU, the UK had to treat EU students in the same manner as it did UK students. This meant charging the same fees and providing the same loans (often unpaid). In the case of Scotland, it also meant the iniquity of EU students ending up paying less than English, Welsh or Northern Irish students. EU graduates also had the right to remain and work on graduation. Post-Brexit, the UK can devise a system that is fair to the UK taxpayer in terms of fees charged, public services and university funding.

The need for better statistics

While UK universities and their Lordly patrons would like to get rid of student immigration statistics altogether, there is in fact a dire need to improve the quality of the information the Government relies on. The current statistics rely on surveys and visa applications, which are – at best – rough estimates of the actual student numbers. They do not give a good enough picture of the number of graduates staying on in each year and do not fully account for the effect of the time lag between admission, graduation and staying on, or what type of institution – university or otherwise – they are at. This could be improved to help Parliament decide on an international student policy that is fair to both UK students and the taxpayer.

However, MPs should not allow their Lordships’ lobbying to force the Government to stop collecting statistics they would rather you do not see. That is a very bad precedent and should be resisted.